The brass is dry for sure this week, readers, and the winds have never been calmer. But some small controversy was brewed on a well trafficked gaming site over a particular gameplay mechanic in Smash Bros. The article defends and voices approval of the tripping mechanic in the last game in the series. It spawned less than amicable responses for various reasons, most regarding the piece’s defense of the much loathed random mechanic and others for the piece’s fuzzy math regarding some other aspects of the game. It did, however, touch upon something that interested me and seems to become a battleground topic whenever Nintendo makes a multiplayer game. The issue of control, over the character and the events surrounding the character, and what degree of control Nintendo affords the player has been a discussion point in Nintendo’s games ever since they became accused of courting the casual crowd. In the past, their games would often set the standard for the genre, even in genres they had little prior experience in. Racing games, fighting games, arcade style shooters, and of course platformers and adventure games. But as time moved on, Nintendo began to back away from some aspects of game design they once pioneered and cherished.
The notion of “easy to pick up, difficult to master” seemed like an apt tag line for nearly every products Nintendo put out, single player or multiplayer, competitive or co-operative. But over time they decided it was more to their benefit to make sure games were “easy to pick up, easy to win”. This trend is firmly centered around the tenure of current CEO Satoru Iwata which kicked into high gear around the midpoint of the GameCube’s life cycle. The earliest evidence of this can be contrast between launch window titles (like Melee) and later ones that began to soften the difficulty in titles like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. While charming and memorable, Wind Waker was also glaringly easy. Even the optional content was mostly a matter of perseverance instead of a test of skill, and it seemed that this was the path Nintendo wanted more of its first party titles to go down.
How the issue of control enters into this has more to do with their multiplayer games and the way in which they have injected mechanics to help level the playing field so that all human players would have a similar shot at victory. In titles like Super Mario Kart and proceeding entries into that series, often many random elements of chance would help to make sure that most skill gaps could be overcome with the right amount of luck. Elements like this would only see a rise in later Mario Kart games and ultimately would impact the game in question: Super Smash Bros. Brawl. What it comes down to in games like this is the amount of control the player has over the avatar and the contention is sometimes made, as it was in the article I linked to, that some players simply have an obsessive desire for total control in a game. Some players might feel cheated when confronted with insurmountable obstacles or unpredictable elements.
I find, wholeheartedly, that those who feel cheated from such game mechanics are completely in the right. If a game is to present the player with a challenge and not simply a series of images that will necessarily be viewed through simple perseverance (not unlike simply watching a movie), then the possibility that some consumers will not be able to finish a game or become the winner must be entertained. And while Nintendo certainly is not alone in fretting over this possibility, they have become a champion of sorts for games that offer or strive for unilateral successes in games. In recent Mario titles they have begun to offer invincibility options for players who might fail a specific challenge repeatedly and in more competitive games they have systematically targeted aspects of the game that would make it “too competitive”. Despite this neutering much remains competitive about a game like Brawl as a matter of course when developing a Smash game, yet it went a long way in casting a pallor over what used to be a developer known for its complexity of game design.
Thankfully in more recent months Nintendo has been addressing this exact phenomenon which is why the reviled mechanic will likely not be seeing a return in the next Smash game. The officially sponsored tournament Nintendo held during this year’s E3 went a long way in sewing good will among the core fanbase because it is therein that lies the real problem: neglect. At one point Nintendo decided that they did not want their games to be overshadowed by an intimidating hyper-competitive atmosphere, forgetting that this atmosphere is comprised of their most devoted customers. These customers, in turn, perform the kind of free publicity their systems need to get games into the hands of perhaps less competitive players. These less competitive players, who might lack the skill or dedication required to master the game they have purchased, will still enjoy their purchase on the equal merits of “easy to pick up”. When games are designed this way it serves to create a community about them, instead of the vague hype that surrounded a recent release like Mario Kart 8 then dissipates shortly after. Better still, this kind of community is capable, as it was with Melee, of housing both a hardcore and causal fanbase that play the game differently. What Nintendo failed to realize was that, in their attempt to close the skill gaps, they served to annoy part of their consumerbase instead of encouraging anyone by toning down the atmosphere of their game.
With the newest Smash game on the horizon, what are your thoughts on how it will turn out? How have you enjoyed the series in the past? And what about Nintendo’s overall push for more casual friendly content? Having total control over the game may not be the only way to play, but commenting on this article IS the only way I know you are reading it (what a transition!), and it would really dampen my brass if you did not.